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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Hollis Brookline Middle School students meet Medal of Honor family from Vietnam Memorial

HOLLIS – The definition of “serendipity” is making fortunate discoveries by accident, and that is precisely what happened when a group of eighth-graders from Hollis Brookline Middle School left a tribute at the Vietnam War Memorial during the annual trip to Washington, D.C., at the end of March.

Each advisory group selects a soldier’s name from the Vietnam War Memorial, researches that individual, and prepares a tribute to be left at the wall during their visit. By a stroke of luck, a member of one honoree’s family happened to be in town that day for a conference, and upon searching for his name on the wall, she found the items the students had presented. The family made contact with the school, and came to Hollis for a special assembly on May 5, where several of the Reading, Organization, Communication and Knowledge groups spoke about their soldiers and the tributes they created. ...

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HOLLIS – The definition of “serendipity” is making fortunate discoveries by accident, and that is precisely what happened when a group of eighth-graders from Hollis Brookline Middle School left a tribute at the Vietnam War Memorial during the annual trip to Washington, D.C., at the end of March.

Each advisory group selects a soldier’s name from the Vietnam War Memorial, researches that individual, and prepares a tribute to be left at the wall during their visit. By a stroke of luck, a member of one honoree’s family happened to be in town that day for a conference, and upon searching for his name on the wall, she found the items the students had presented. The family made contact with the school, and came to Hollis for a special assembly on May 5, where several of the Reading, Organization, Communication and Knowledge groups spoke about their soldiers and the tributes they created.

For example, students in Patricia Smith’s ROCK group chose Blair Charlton Wyre because he was the last person from New Hampshire listed on the wall. The pilot and his crew were shot down, and his remains were returned in 1990. Because Wyre was known for his flying skills, the group found inspiration from the popular song lyrics “He will raise you up, on eagle’s wings” and drew an eagle and signed their names on its wings as their tribute.

Patrick McDonald spoke at the assembly on behalf of June Cloutier’s ROCK group, which selected its soldier based on a former HBMS student whose grandfather died in Vietnam.

When Jennifer Christman asked her students if they had any friends or family members who served in Vietnam, Elizabeth Scrima asked her parents and learned of a soldier from Norwood, Mass., where her family lived. Lance Cpl. Richard Murphy enlisted in the Marines and died on June 15, 1968, at age 20. As a tribute, the group wrote a poem and crafted a wreath with flags, leaves, a purple heart and ribbons in red, white and blue.

“For a long time, I have wanted to join the military, so this project was very special to me,” Elizabeth said. “The Murphys were friends of my family, and it meant a lot to honor such a young soldier.”

Richard Loy Etchberger

Students in music teacher Nancy Spencer’s ROCK group selected the recipient of the Air Force Cross and the Medal of Honor, Chief Master Sgt. Richard Loy Etchberger, as their soldier. Born in Reading, Pa., in 1933, he joined the Air Force in 1951. His training in electronics led to a career in radar bomb scoring. His leadership and expertise were needed for a top-secret mission, so he ventured to Lima Site 85 in Laos, where he worked on taking down enemy radar. He and his crew were stationed at the top of a mountain and were attacked on March 11, 1968, the day before they were supposed to be evacuated. He was helping wounded crew members into a helicopter when he was fatally wounded. Thirteen of the 19 Americans perished, and only six sets of remains have been accounted for.

He was awarded the Air Force Cross – that service’s highest honor – in 1968, but it wasn’t until 2010 that his Medal of Honor was bestowed. His three sons run a nonprofit organization, the CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger Foundation, which presents his story at schools and military bases around the county.

His middle son, Richard, lives in Utah with his family, and it was his wife, Lianna, who was at a conference in Washington, D.C., the same day as the HBMS students. She went to the Vietnam War Memorial to honor the father-in-law she never met and found the tribute. Due to the volume of mementos left at the wall, the National Park Service removes items daily and sends them to be stored at the Smithsonian Institute, so it truly was fortuitous timing. A few hours earlier or later, and the connection might never have been made.

‘The Power of One’

Etchberger’s youngest son, Cory, came to HBMS on May 5 on behalf of the CMSgt Richard L. Etchberger Foundation.

“I call this ‘The Power of One,’ ” he said regarding his presentation, “because he had the heroism to save lives above his own – the power of one person. We’re not talking Rambo here. It’s what’s inside that counts.”

He encouraged students to share a time when they were able to influence someone in a positive way or made a good choice when faced with a challenging decision.

He shared several memories of his father, who died when Cory was 9, ranging from performance reports that called him a born leader to examples of helping others.

“So here’s a person I think is a hero every day, and he is always taking care of others,” Cory said. “He went to the hospital and invited the wounded to Thanksgiving dinner with us. You couldn’t drink the water in the Philippines, so he’d stock the fridge or pantry so when airmen arrived, they’d be all set.”

Phone calls and secrets

Because of the 1962 Geneva Convention, the U.S. was not supposed to have military forces in Laos. To get around this, Etchberger and his crew were discharged from the Air Force and went as civilian employees of Lockheed Co., while his family went to live in a regular house in Pennsylvania. His wife knew the truth about his mission and was sworn to secrecy by the Pentagon.

“This was my first time not living on an Air Force base, so if something should happen to him, he made sure we would be taken care of,” Cory said. “He lived the Airman’s Creed: ‘Never leave a man behind.’ My mom did what all military spouses do: took care of the family and kept his secret for 18 years.”

Cory still vividly remembers the phone call informing them that his father had been killed. In a twist of fate, stepson Steve’s wife gave birth to the first grandchild the same day. Etchberger is one of only 19 enlisted men to be awarded the Air Force Cross, that branch’s highest honor.

“The Air Force Cross ceremony was not just private, but secret,” Corey said. “We rode in a van with blacked-out windows and no media.”

To put things in perspective, Cory explained to the students that in 1968, the Vietnam War was not going well and was widely protested, and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated. President Lyndon B. Johnson had just announced that he would not seek re-election, perhaps out of fear that America’s presence in Laos might be made public.

For 18 years, Cory, his brothers and everyone else was led to believe that Etchberger died in a helicopter crash somewhere in Southeast Asia. Even after the mission was declassified in 1986, his mother still never discussed it. She died in 1994.

Medal of Honor

Officials had promised Etchberger’s widow that he would receive the Medal of Honor once the mission was declassified, but somehow the paperwork went astray. The Lima Site 85 story resurfaced in 1999, with the publication of “One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam” by investigative journalist Timothy Castle.

One of Etchberger’s surviving colleagues who read Castle’s book contacted Cory and pushed for his recognition to be upgraded to Medal of Honor. It took four years, but when the phone rang on July 10, 2010, it was President Barack Obama informing Cory that the paperwork was approved. The ceremony was held at the White House on Sept. 21, 2010, with 15 family members in attendance.

“To go to the White House for the ceremony was amazing, powerful, life-changing day for me,” said Julie Boyer, Cory’s sister-in-law, who wears a silver bracelet engraved with Etchberger’s name and dates. “I knew about Cory’s dad for a long time, but not the whole story, and to be invited to join them for that honor just left me speechless. I wear this bracelet every day to remind me of him and how he was a hero every day. I never see a veteran or someone in uniform that I don’t go up and thank them for their service.”

For additional information, including video of the Medal of Honor ceremony, go to www.chiefetch
bergerfoundation.org
.